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December 11, 2012
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Eagle County airport unveils new baggage, security systems

This story has been corrected

GYPSUM, Colorado - A lot is new at the Eagle County Regional Airport this season, but most passengers will never see the biggest, most complicated part of the summer-long improvement project.

The large, mostly windowless warehouse space to the east of the passenger terminal is now devoted to a state-of-the-art baggage-handling and screening system. The system starts at the curbside, when passengers drop off their bags. Those bags are now swallowed by the building, and all but the biggest are put on a complex conveyor system. That system splits the bags into two lines - one for American Airlines, one for the other airlines that fly into and out of the airport. Those bags are then sent through a scanning system.

In a small room, a pair of Transportation Security Administration officers watches the scanners. If those scanners detect any item that might be prohibited, that bag is pulled off the conveyor line and checked by hand - meaning it's opened and examined by another security officer.

The system is fast - it takes about three and a half minutes for a bag to get from curbside to the baggage trolley that hauls it to an outbound jet. It's also efficient.

Darrell Abbott, who runs the Transportation Security Administration's operations at the airport, said the system requires just eight people to run it. Last year, it took about 16 people to check bags.

"If we were building a brand-new airport today, it would have this system," Transportation Security Administration officials Andrew McBride said.

And, McBride said, the new system is "very gentle," at least as far as baggage-handling systems are concerned.

While the baggage system won't be seen by anyone without a security badge or personal escort, everyone who uses the airport will notice the new passenger-screening system.

That system has been moved - from the middle of the south side of the terminal to the hallway between the south and north, secure, half of the building. A T-shirt shop was sacrificed to make room for the new system. The old system had two lines - three on busy days. The new security station has four lanes.

The new scanners, which look sort of like a "Star Trek"-style teleporter, use "millimeter waves" instead of X-rays. Abbott said people are now exposed to about the same radiation as a cell phone call.

Passengers must completely empty their pockets before going through the scanner. If there's anything - from a pocket comb to a Swiss army knife, the scanner will spot it, and pinpoint the object on a generic outline of a person on the scanner screen.

Carrie Harmon of the Transportation Security Administration's Denver office said "about 99 percent" of all passengers go through scanners. The remainder are subject to a pat-down by an officer.

Both the baggage and screening system upgrades - $6 million for the baggage system alone - were mostly paid through federal and state grants, with the rest being paid for out of airport funds.

Airport manager Greg Phillips said the work done over the summer will be meaningful for years to come.

"This is about our future," Phillips said. "I try to look 20 years down the road for this facility."

Phillips said that long view is important in the airport business, adding serious planning for this year's improvements started in 2007. That long view has to include at least an idea of how many people will use an airport in the future.

Phillips is bullish on this airport's future.

"We're going to have the capacity to handle more traffic as it comes in," he said.


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The VailDaily Updated Dec 12, 2012 12:35PM Published Dec 11, 2012 07:32PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.